The Magic had two days between games for just the second time this season. What a rare and exciting occurrence during this cramped and crunched season that is going to test even the most seasoned veterans.
There are going to be games like last week’s loss to Detroit where the team just looks absolutely gassed and unable to move. Much less defend the pick and roll. That was just a bad game. And judging from scores and the pace around the league, there are likely to be more of those to come.
No knock on the players, who by all reports came back to camp in shape for the most part, but the players are just not in shape for the kind of rigorous, rushed schedule that lays before them.
The Portland Trail Blazers, who the Magic play tonight, faced the Clippers last night at the Rose Garden on the front end of a home back-to-back. Who knows, maybe some Magic players went to the game for some early scouting as fans. Or maybe not.
Still, jokes aside, the schedule has been daunting for the Magic. They have already played a stretch of six games in nine days to start the season. In January alone, the Magic have played five games in eight days. This two-day break was a welcome breather.
Especially considering the schedule is going to get more compact in this next stretch. The Magic still have 12 games in the remaining 21 days of the month. That will include the team’s lone back-to-back-to-back stretch of the season — it begins in New York on Monday, continues at home against Charlotte on Tuesday and concludes at home against San Antonio on Wednesday — and a stretch of 10 games in the final 15 days of the month.
Who knew a West Coast road trip would provide a reprieve from an already packed schedule?
Of course, all this is going on while the Magic try to win games and re-establish themselves among the championship contenders in the East.
The goal for the Magic, and really every team in the NBA, is focusing on the mental aspect of fatigue and fighting through it. Even in the early part of the season, several teams have shown the ability to get past physical fatigue for some strong wins.
The task is certainly not easy, even though just about every other team in the league is going through similar stretches of constant playing.
“Everybody’s feeling it,” Dwight Howard said after the Magic’s come-from-behind win over the Raptors on Jan. 1. “We just have to continue to play through it. We just have to make sure we take care of our bodies. It’s very tough because of the schedule. We just have to stick with it and understand that we’re not the only team that has to play games like this. If we are tough mentally, we can overcome.”
That Toronto game — and the Detroit game that followed — seemed to be the peak of Orlando’s fatigue in the early part of this season. Those two games to begin January were the end of six games in nine nights. Howard said before the game that Jason Richardson told him he was beginning to feel the fatigue from games piling up. The physical evidence was there when Richardson missed a dunk short that evening.
But it is possible to overcome physical fatigue. Look at what the Hawks and Thunder did. Atlanta went 2-1 in a back-to-back-to-back last week including a triple overtime loss to Miami at home int he first game and then a strong performance in a win over the Bulls in the final game of the set. Oklahoma City also became the first team to sweep their back-to-back-to-back this season.
It can be done.
The Magic have already proven that a lot of fighting fatigure this season is going to be purely mental. Take that Raptors game, for instance. The Magic looked dead in the water in the fourth quarter. Then the spark was lit and the Magic made a wild comeback behind some extremely strong defense and a suddenly awakened offense. Never mind that the next night was perhaps the worst offensive performance of the year against Detroit on the road.
The thing is, this game proved that the faituge thing is a good portion mental. The Magic were lifeless through three quarters and dug deep to get the win in the fourth.
“You can summon it. I’ve seen that so many times in sports that you have to believe a lot of it like in games like tonight has to be more mental than physical,” Stan Van Gundy said following the Jan. 1 win over Toronto. “Because, if it’s physical, how are you more tired in the first, second and third quarters than you are in the fourth quarter after you play the minutes.
“The bottom line is your mind engages and your energy comes from your sense of urgency and wanting to get the job done and wanting to win you have the mental toughness to find the energy. There’s really no reason you couldn’t have found it at the start of the game.”
There is a physical component though. Playing NBA basketball is extremely taxing physically. And Stan Van Gundy is not afraid to lean heavily on his starters. Dwight Howard continues to routinely play 38-40 minutes out of necessity. Hedo Turkoglu will play 35-plus minutes on occassion too. Van Gundy recognized this might be a problem moving forward and made it a point to play Von Wafer and expand his rotation in Sunday’s game against Sacramento. It is yet to be seen whether this will continue.
The mental challenge is going to continue to challenge Orlando and the rest of the teams in the NBA. So too will the physical challenge.
That will not serve as an excuse though.
“I think it’s both (physical and mental). I can’t deny certain things when I’m out there playing five games in eight nights,” Hedo Turkoglu said on Jan. 1. “But, on the other hand, you have to be true professionals and can’t keep talking about it and give excuses about it.”